I was almost finished with elementary school by the time I met a friend who had divorced parents. I know this must seem very weird in today's world where more marriages cease than continue, but it's true -- in my small-town Midwestern universe, every kid I knew had a mom and a dad that were married. Divorce was rarely talked about, considered an "adult" topic only, shameful and scandalous, with the divorced man seemingly a new middle-aged playboy-on-the-loose, and the divorced woman damaged goods, a failure. These were the post-Pill, but pre-Roe v. Wade days when all advocates of equal rights for women were still seen as strident, over-educated threats to the American way of life, and there were almost no good job opportunities or protections for women. Many women endured terrible domestic situations because they could see no way out for themselves and their children. Many men endured the same, because the social shame and career implications of divorce were too costly. And no one talked about it.

So it was quite the novelty for me at 11 years old to find myself with a best friend whose parents were divorced, her young mother with full custody of all three of the kids, my friend the oldest. Of course, I was curious about the dad and asked a lot of questions at first. Where is your dad? He lives in Florida with his girlfriend and her kids. Do you ever see him? Yes, we are going down there to visit soon It's going to be so cool because he said we are going to the beach and on a boat and their house has a pool, too! We get our own rooms with bunk beds and get to pick out new decorations! Why did your parents get divorced? They fought all the time. Ohhhhh, I said, fascinated by this exotic arrangement of family. It was obvious by the way my friend and her siblings spoke about their dad that they loved him, were proud of the work he did, and desperately wanted to spend time with him.

Over the next six years, their two-bedroom apartment was my second home. I was always welcomed, and treated like family. I was there a lot, so I was able to see with heartbreaking, slow-motion detail what it looked like as three great kids were abandoned by their father. It started with money. My friend's mom worked 50-60 hours a week at a clerical job, which at the time probably didn't pay more than two bucks an hour. It wasn't enough, but almost immediately the child support checks stopped coming. There were furious phone calls at night, or a phone never answered, bills stacked on the kitchen table, unopened. Using the car was luxury, doctor visits merited for only the most severe illnesses, and sometimes the food they shared with me wasn't enough to feed two people, much less five. The father called maybe a couple times a year and talked to the kids, and then that stopped, too. No birthday presents. No cards. No knowing that my friend was a hard-worker who made great grades and whom everyone loved for her sunny optimism, or that her brother was hilarious and handsome, or that her little sister was sharp and sweet and so lovable.

My friend and her brother and sister never spoke ill of their father. They just, over time, stopped talking about him at all.

I remember when my friend developed a terrible cough that went on for weeks, around the time she was 15 or so. She looked awful, gray and puffy, and wasn't acting like her usual vibrant self. Her mouth was always stained cherry-red from Halls Cough Drops. When she started dropping a lot of weight, I got scared. You have to go to the doctor! Oh no, no, I'm sure I will be fine, it's just a cold, it's getting better. I knew what she was doing, because I had seen her do it so many times: she didn't want to worry her already-stressed-to-the-max mother by throwing one more huge bill on the kitchen table pile. Eventually, her mother insisted and took her to the pediatrician. It was strep. If you've ever had strep, you know the pain of it can be almost unbearable. She got the antibiotics she needed, and started to look like her old self again in a month or so.

It is today, on Father's Day, that I wonder if my friend's father knew that if he had sent those child support checks, and if he had been at all involved in his children's lives, my friend wouldn't have waited too long to see a doctor, in fear that her family might get evicted or the car repossessed or have nothing to eat for days. But she did wait too long, and the strep badly damaged her heart. She died of multiple organ failure in her 40s.

In her honor, I make a request. No matter how you feel about your ex, no matter if you are struggling financially, no matter if you have a new spouse that doesn't want old baggage, no matter if you feel awkward or shut out or frustrated, please please please there for your children. Do everything you can to do the right thing, and don't give up even if you falter or it's been a long time since you've contacted them, or you fear maybe they are better off without you. Just hang in there with them. Because even if my friend's dad had not a dime to his name, at least maybe he could have held her hand in the hospital, told her he was proud of her and that she was precious and perfect as she was, before she slipped away.

Goddamn that man for making my beautiful friend feel unloved.

Harry Nilsson, "Daddy's Song"

Years ago, I knew a man
He was my mother's biggest fan
We used to walk beside the sea
And he told me how life would be
When I grew up to be a man

Years ago, we used to play
He used to laugh when I ran away
And when I fell and hurt my knee
He would run to comfort me
And the pain would go away
Years ago, I knew a boy
He was his daddy's pride and joy, pride and joy
But when the daddy went away
It was such a rainy day
That he brought out all his toys

And how the mother did explain
Trying to take away the pain
But, he just couldn't understand
That his father was not a man
And it all was just a game

The years have passed and so have I
Making it hard for me to cry
But if we wanna have a son
Let it all be said and done
Let the sadness pass him by